If only every worthy book hit bookstores with trumpets heralding its arrival. These days, a lot of great books, especially those from small presses, are scarcely reviewed. I want to speak up for some little books that could—and should—books that moved me, made me laugh, or transported me to their very different worlds. You may not have heard of all of them, but I guarantee they’re worth a read.
Elsewhere, California, by Dana Johnson
This is a lovable coming-of-age tale about a girl named Avery, growing up in South Central Los Angeles in the 1970s and ’80s. When gang activity threatens Avery’s brother, their parents move them 30 minutes up the road—but a world away—to West Covina, where Avery must contend with the white world and its views of her. “I’m tired of being called Imitation,” she says, “Because everything I wear is like something else but not the actual thing it’s supposed to be. My Izod shirt really isn’t Izod Lacoste. It’s got a horse on it instead of a crocodile.” The story alternates between Avery’s childhood and her adulthood as a successful artist who’s still not quite sure of her place in the world, even though her “blendability” enables her to penetrate the realms of both rich and poor, black and white.
The Flamer, by Ben Rogers
I guarantee you’ve never come across a coming-of-age narrative quite like Rogers’ debut, which tells the story of a young Nevada pyromaniac, Oby Brooks. Oby is, shall we say, different, a teenager so obsessed with the science of pyrotechnics he comes to believe he’s the lone representative of a new orientation: a “pyrosexual.” Oby’s mentor, a chemistry teacher, counsels him that “Nevada’s full of things that need blowing up,” and gets him an internship at a quarry, where he encounters colorful characters and new adventures.
The Coffins of Little Hope, by Timothy Schaffert
A small Nebraska town is gripped by the mystery of a missing child named Lenore, whom nobody ever knew existed in the first place, in Schaffert’s warm, wise, and funny novel. Essie Myles, the 83-year-old obituary writer for town newspaper The County Paragraph, is the irresistible narrator of this tale exploring contemporary media culture, aging, and death with effervescent wit.
Contenders, by Erika Krouse
You don’t want to get on the bad side of Nina Black, the protagonist of Krouse’s debut novel. Black is a martial arts expert who makes a living provoking men at bars into insulting or attacking her, and then beating them up and taking their wallets. She lives by the martial arts code that she must never strike first. But when a mixed martial arts fighter/policeman threatens her after she beats him, and a childhood flame shows up with Nina’s dead brother’s daughter in tow, Nina’s stripped-down life becomes much more complicated. Krouse, whose fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, One Story, and The Atlantic, can craft a sentence so sharp it’ll cut your skin, and begins each chapter with an entrancing tale from martial arts lore.
A Manual for Cleaning Women, by Lucia Berlin
Publishers Weekly recently said Berlin “may just be the best writer you’ve never heard of.” How did I hear of her? Berlin, who died in 2004, was my dear teacher and friend. She published all her life with small, beat-oriented press Black Sparrow Books, earning a passionate but modest following for her bittersweet, funny, gritty tales. Berlin’s stories slay me, whether they involve a nurse encountering a jockey in a hospital emergency room (“My Jockey), a receptionist in a health clinic (“Mijito”), or a teacher in a Catholic school who must contend with the disruptive influence of one magnetic bad boy (“El Tim”). Trust me, Berlin conveys more about grace, redemption, and humanity than half the writers who are household names. Try any of her old collections still in print from Black Sparrow, such as So Long or Where I Live Now, or pre-order your copy of A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories, due out in August from FS&G.